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1968: the global legacy

Fri, 13 Jun 2008 14:08:32 +0000

"With the coming of the dawn, the promises of the night fade away". In politics, as in love, the old Spanish saying sounds a pertinent warning; not least in regard to the memorialisation and assessment which the events of 1968 (and particularly the Paris uprising of May of that year) are receiving on their fortieth anniversary. Also in openDemocracy on legacies of 1968: Donald Nicholson-Smith, "Black glove/white glove: revisiting Mexico's 1968" (25 August 2004) Neal Ascherson, "The Polish March: students, workers, and 1968" (1 February 2008) Todd Gitlin, "Rethinking the kinetics of 1968" (11 April 2008) Patrice de Beer, "May '68: France's politics of memory" (28 April 2008) Sophie Quinn-Judge, "Hoang Minh Chinh: the honourable dissident" (30 April 2008) Paul Hockenos, "The 1968 debate in Germany" (2 May 2008)Anyone who lived through those exhilirating and formative times - as I did at the age of 22 - can testify to the hurricane force of that year. Like every such phenomenon it carried multiple elements: in this case a generation's visceral rejection of the accumulated conformism of post-1945 Europe and north America; a heady encounter with new forms of music, art, thinking, and debate; and a many-centred solidarity with global movements of protest and revolt - be they in Vietnam and Latin America, in Czechoslovakia and Russia, or in the United States among African-Americans and anti-war protesters. As one of the editors of the newly founded radical weekly Black Dwarf, I well remember the day in which we decided on the frontpage affirmation that to me encapsulated the aspirations and enthusiasms of that time more than any other: "Paris, London, Rome, Berlin. We shall fight, and we shall win!" The problem is that, in many ways, we lost. 1968 was a wonderful time. It shaped the intellectual and moral framework of my adult years. It does not deserve the sneering, partisan dismissal of some of its unacknowledged beneficiaries (such as Tony Blair and Nicolas Sarkozy). But it is equally ill-served by the kind of one-dimensional and (in the true sense) uncritical celebration that contemporary media, publishing and intellectual cultures too often regurgitate. The cycles of reality A recollection of the larger political currents that contextualise the experience of 1968 exemplifies the point. The theatre of Paris in May ’68 notwithstanding, the year did not alter the politics of any western European country. France is the primary exhibit. A month after May, after all, came the mass rallies in favour of Charles de Gaulle in the Champs-Elysées; followed by the general elections of 23-30 June in which the French right won a resounding victory. When de Gaulle resigned a year later, his successor was the loyal subordinate Georges Pompidou. It took until 1981 for a candidate of the left, François Mitterrand, to be elected president - and this socialist was a ormer Vichy collaborator whose conspiratorial style of politics was the very opposite of the best of May '68. Such tainted political advances are characteristic of the year's ambiguous legacy. In Britain too, the anti-Vietnam-war demonstrations of March and October 1968 (in both of which I was an enthusiastic participant) did not presage any wider change, within or outside the parliamentary system. The protestors denounced the Labour prime minister Harold Wilson, but his replacement after the election of June 1970 was not a figure of the left but a Conservative, Edward Heath. In the United States, 1968 marked the onset of a politically more reactionary epoch rather than a progressive one. The election of Richard M Nixon on 6 November, albeit narrow, was its augur; though it came to fruition only with Ronald Reagan's victory in 1980, after the insipid administration of Jimmy Carter in the late 1970s (just as the Labour governments of Wilson/James Callaghan in Britain were in retrospect an interlude in a long Conservative hegemony, heralded by[...]

The 1968 debate in Germany

Fri, 02 May 2008 16:21:18 +0000

There's no place like Germany for wrenching, introspective public debates over national history and collective memory. This phenomenon itself is one of the legacies of the 1967-69 student movement, known in shorthand in today's Bundesrepublik as "'68", and today the subject of bitter dispute.Paul Hockenos is an American writer living in Berlin. He is the author of Joschka Fischer and the Making of the Berlin Republic: An Alternative History of Postwar Germany (Oxford University Press, 2008) Also by Paul Hockenos in openDemocracy: "Kosovo's contested future" (16 November 2007) In contrast to previous ten-year anniversaries, the fortieth has brought a thoroughgoing revisionist examination of the anti-establishment, countercultural uprising that had parallels across the globe and yet retained a singular character and style in what was then West Germany. The Studentenbewegung, which had been extolled as a "second founding of the republic" and the event responsible for "democratising democracy" in post-war Germany, is currently being compared to the Nazi movement of the 1930s and credited with incubating later societal ills - from teenage dereliction to the sagging birthrate. This kind of treatment has long been standard at conservative hands - but today it is coming from the ranks of former leftists, a number of them "68ers" themselves. The world of a generation Although I disagree fundamentally with the '68-bashing en vogue at the moment, I'm not particularly surprised to see it. A principal reason is that the student movement itself was so full of contradictions, it is relatively easy to build a one-sided case about it - as both detractors and hagiographers have - using some facts while ignoring others. In the publications and speeches of its partisans, including the iconic Rudi Dutschke, it is possible to find vague calls to armed struggle alongside endorsements of civil disobedience; advocacy of guerrilla warfare in the "third world" alongside strategies for a "long march through the institutions"; adoration of Martin Luther King alongside homage of Mao Zedong and the Black Panthers. Some student rebels - self-acclaimed pacifists in the early 1960s - spoke of "October-style" revolution while others planned a Hegelian revolution in consciousness. They disparaged parliamentary democracy as elitist, but calls for "more democracy" punctuated all of their demands. The same young people who used the kibbutz as a model for their communes endorsed blinkered pro-Arab stands in the middle east. These different accents also underscore the movement's heterogeneity.Also in openDemocracy on legacies of 1968: Donald Nicholson-Smith, "Black glove/white glove: revisiting Mexico's 1968" (25 August 2004) Neal Ascherson, "The Polish March: students, workers, and 1968" (1 February 2008) Todd Gitlin, "Rethinking the kinetics of 1968" (11 April 2008) Patrice de Beer, "May '68: France's politics of memory" (28 April 2008) Sophie Quinn-Judge, "Hoang Minh Chinh: the honourable dissident" (30 April 2008) The student partisans' relationship to the United States was equally complex. On the one hand, the war in Vietnam specifically and "US imperialism" in general were central to the movement. Amerikahaus cultural centres were routinely stoned and one of the protest chants was "USA-SA-SS", comparing the US to Nazi Germany. But the same protesters were philo-American in so many ways. They were conscious they were using protest forms pioneered in America - the sit-ins, teach-ins, and other forms of civil disobedience picked up from the US civil-rights movement. Their politics would have been inconceivable without Bob Dylan's lyrics, the works of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, and the examples of Haight-Ashbury and the Berkeley free-speech movement. This post-war generation was incomparably more American -[...]

Hoang Minh Chinh: the honourable dissident

Wed, 30 Apr 2008 15:03:56 +0000

A reproachful ghost hovers over the events marking the fortieth anniversary of the Tet offensive in Vietnam launched in January 1968, and the thirty-third anniversary of the unification of the country heralded by the military victory of 30 April 1975. His name is Hoang Minh Chinh, Hanoi's perennial dissident, who died on 7 February 2008 at the age of 88. Sophie Quinn-Judge is associate director of the Center for Vietnamese Philosophy, Culture and Society, Temple University. She is the author of Ho Chi Minh: The Missing Years, 1919-1941 (Hurst, 2002) Also by Sophie Quinn-Judge in openDemocracy: "Who are the Vietnamese in 2005?" (29 April 2005) "Vietnam: the necessary voices" (30 April 2007) The oft-renamed Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) never forgave Chinh for advocating peaceful coexistence as the build-up to war began in 1963; then they threw him in prison in July 1967, when they suspected that he was plotting with Moscow to prevent the new year's insurgency that swept over South Vietnam at the start of 1968. The charges against him were never made public; he and those arrested with him were tried and convicted by a secretive seven-man party committee, with no legal status. Once he was allowed to return to Hanoi in 1976 as a non-person, he devoted himself to demanding an open hearing for his case, in line with the provisions of Vietnam's constitution. He became a test-case for democratisation in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (as it became in 1976); although his struggle was never successful, he acquitted himself with more honour than the Communist Party. A Moscow-trained Marxist philosopher, Hoang Minh Chinh proved over his long life that he could match the party itself in stubborn self-defence: he never stopped trying to clear his name, as well as those of his associates (including military men, journalists and one former private secretary of Ho Chi Minh) arrested in the autumn of 1967. He spent six years in prison, followed by three of restricted residence in Son Tay province. He would be re-arrested two more times, once as late as 1995, on the grounds that he was violating his civic rights by petitioning to have his good name restored. Altogether he spent twelve years in prison, and another six under house arrest or restricted residence. A purge in Hanoi Hoang Minh Chinh was born Tran Ngoc Nghiem in the northern province of Nam Dinh in 1920 (several sources say 1922). He began his revolutionary career during the Popular Front era in 1937 and was initiated into the party in 1939, with just before the second world war broke out. From 1940 to 1943 the French held him in Son La prison, along with many others who would become the leaders of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV), including his future nemesis, Le Duc Tho. He was present at the first national congress in Tan Trao village in August 1945, where Ho Chi Minh's provisional Viet Minh government was introduced. After the Japanese surrender and the Viet Minh proclamation of independence, Hoang Minh Chinh became the general secretary of the Democratic Party, largely a front to attract intellectuals and members of the bourgeoisie into the ranks of the nationalist movement. When the war against France resumed, Chinh led a successful attack on Gia Lam airport outside Hanoi, for which he was decorated. Also in openDemocracy on aspects of Vietnam and echoes of its conflicts: Pham Thi Hoai, "What remains: Vietnam in my heart" (29 April 2005) Philip Jones Griffiths, "'Viet Nam at Peace': the empire strikes back" (29 April 2005) Li Datong, "Will China follow Vietnam's lead?" (21 February 2007) Martin Shaw, "My Lai to Haditha: war, massacre and justice" (17 March 2008) Paul Rogers, "Afghanistan's Vietnam portent" (17 April 2008) His life's path was decided when he was sent to Moscow's higher party school in 1957, for a three-year course in Marxism-Leninism. These were the ye[...]

May ‘68: France's politics of memory

Mon, 28 Apr 2008 11:44:51 +0000

France is approaching a potent anniversary in a strange mood. The student riots of May 1968 radically shook an arch-conservative society and came near to toppling then-president Charles de Gaulle - as well as inspiring students in Europe, the United States and Japan to emulate Paris's "example". It is natural, then, that the fortieth anniversary is being vigorously commemorated; more than 100 books have already been published in France to coincide with the sparking date of les événements (22 March 1968), and dozens of TV and radio programmes are on the way around the moment (3 May) when the student uprising effectively began. Patrice de Beer is former London and Washington correspondent for Le Monde Among Patrice de Beer's recent articles in openDemocracy: "Sarkozy's rightwing revolution" (8 May 2007) "Le Monde's democratic coup" (30 May 2007) "A not so quiet American" (13 July 2007) "Nicholas Sarkozy, rupture and ouverture" (31 July 2007) "The French temptation" (31 August 2007) "Nicolas Sarkozy's world" (10 October 2007) "Nicolas Sarkozy's striking test" (29 November 2007) "Calle Santa Fé: between Chile and freedom" (16 January 2008) "Sarkozy and God" (6 February 2008) At the same time, this festival of memory (which will coincide with another, significantly less noisy one - the fiftieth anniversary of the referendum endorsing the fifth republic) is confined mostly to the media and intellectual class. The normally voluble President Nicolas Sarkozy (who said during the election campaign in 2007 that "May 68's heritage must be liquidated once and for all") has since kept quiet. More important, the French "people" themselves - in whose name so many of the 1968 protests were launched and speeches were delivered - appear uninterested. True, the actual anniversary has yet to arrive and there will no doubt be a moment when the 1968 commemoration becomes "real" to more than the familiar commentators on the French political scene. But at present, insofar as the French seek release from their economic and social worries, it is in a new film rather than old events. Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis (Welcome to the Ch'tis) has broken box-office records in a matter of weeks, with over 17 million viewers. The title may need some translation (Ch'tis is a nickname for people living in France's far north), but the imaginative transformation it achieves will be familiar to those who have seen The Full Monty - as the stereotype of a cold, depressed, post-industrial wilderness inhabited by people with bad teeth and broken lives is stripped away to reveal a spirit of solidarity, human warmth, resilience and friendship. But this smash-hit film's comic pleasures are closer to the heart of the '68 phenomenon than might be thought. The deeper chord struck by Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis is in a celebration of human bonds amid today's ruthless capitalism, just as May ‘68 was also a protest by the young against the alienating boredom of an authoritarian and "blocked" society. Julie Coudry, the (possibly departing) president of the Confédération Etudiante, has made the point that in 1968, students (and striking workers) opposed to the ordre établi sought new forms of participation and communication; while in 2008, people are fearful of all-powerful globalisation yet also anxious to play their part in the reform of an (again) blocked society where a new generation of young people (again) has little say. The May explosion It is useful to recall what actually happened in those distant "May days" - not least to clear things up with myself, as I was in Asia for he whole of 1968-69, and it took me years to reconnect with friends who had been on the barricades around Paris's Sorbonne. Les événements began on 22 March with a sm[...]

Regaining the kinetics of 1968

Fri, 11 Apr 2008 11:21:29 +0000

With the predictable turn of the decimal wheel, 1968 is back in our faces, up for grabs, forty years on but perennially a live if not limber subject for excavation, contention, and inquisition. Sometimes the media perform selective taxidermy, as in the annual media effort, at work as I write, to stuff the remains of Martin Luther King into a narrative of seamless American uplift. Todd Gitlin is professor of journalism and sociology and chair of the phD programme in communications at Columbia University. He has written twelve books, among them The Bulldozer and the Big Tent: Blind Republicans, Lame Democrats, and the Recovery of American Ideals (John Wiley, 2007), Letters to a Young Activist (Basic Books, 2003) and The Intellectuals and the Flag (Columbia University Press, 2006). His website is here. His most recent book is The Bulldozer and the Big Tent: Of Identities and Ideals in the Uproar of American Politics (John Wiley, 2007) Among his many articles on openDemocracy: "How to be radical?" (4 September 2003) - an interview with Todd Gitlin and George Monbiot "Why the Democrats lost: an interview" (22 December 2004) "After the fall: George W Bush in trouble" (16 May 2005) "The authority of anti-authority" (16 November 2005) "The dust and the butterfly" (12 May 2006 Sometimes, embers of those days of ferocious hope and wild rage ignite flames and the flames lick at the edges of an American presidential campaign, with Barack Obama hammered for affiliating with a minister who long indulged in the trips and tropes of that time, Hillary Clinton insisting that she is the proper custodian of the flame, and John McCain quipping that he couldn't get to the "cultural and pharmaceutical event" of Woodstock because he was "tied up at the time" (in Hanoi captivity, as he didn't have to say). It's remarkable, but not really surprising, that American politics should be haunted by spooky afterimages, since the earthquake of 1968 emerged from deep, wrenching faults that still emit tremors. Clashes of race, sex, and culture, revolts against mindless authority, the hubris of America's plutocrats and reckless legions - all this still reverberates in present time. At the same time, the popular products of American culture are nervelessly tied up themselves, fearing to plunge too far into the cauldron of unresolved history. Strikingly, if one surveys film, television, and fiction in the United States, thoughtful dissection of the bygone decade is at a premium - except when swallowed up in the picturesque exploits of the Weather Underground, the gaudiest and most self-caricaturing of the offshoots of late-‘60s militancy. Faced with the decadal commemorations, almost everyone under 50 turns into Mr Jones, who knows that something was happening then but hasn't much idea what it was. Fortunately, an Italian film has just arrived in the US to channel the devotional, incandescent, melodramatic and crazy moments of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Although many of the Italian particulars differed from the American (or the French, the Mexican, or the Czech), there is enough of a common template to enable a foreign filmgoer to apply the tone and texture of Italian events to their American not-quite-parallels. The political carousel Mio fratello è figlio unico (My Brother Is an Only Child) is in the great line of Italian films where everything fervent and jarring breaks out of the working-class family. (Luchino Visconti's 1960 film Rocco and His Brothers is a precedent for My Brother...- love, longing, and violence, not least in the device of two brothers who love the same beauty.) The title-line of somehow good-hearted estrangement, lifted from a pop song, might have been spoken by either of the two brothers who are the movie's principals. The younger, Accio (Elio Germano), is a intellectual who, when we first en[...]

The Polish March: students, workers, and 1968

Thu, 06 Mar 2008 22:49:50 +0000

The first student uprising in 1968, year of millennial hopes and young insurrections, took place in Warsaw. But the west's media commemorations of 1968 - selective, supercilious about such idealism, and yet faintly nervous in case a new generation feels tempted into imitation - overlook Poland entirely. Neal Ascherson is a journalist and writer. He was for many years a foreign correspondent for the (London) Observer. Among his books are The King Incorporated: Leopold the Second and the CongoThe Struggles for Poland (Random House, 1988), Black Sea (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1996; reprinted 2007), and Stone Voices: the Search for Scotland (Granta, 2003) Also by Neal Ascherson on openDemocracy: "From multiculturalism to where?" (19 August 2004) "Pope John Paul II and democracy" (1 April 2005) "Tbilisi, Georgia: the rose revolution's rocky road" (15 July 2005) "The victory and defeat of Solidarność" (6 September 2005) "Poland's interregnum" (30 September 2005) "Victory's lost sister - the wreck of the Implacable" (21 October 2005) "A carnival of stupidity" (6 February 2006) "Good Night, and Good Luck" (17 February 2006) "Torture: from regress to redress" (1 March 2006) "The case for pre-emption: Alan M Dershowitz reviewed" (18 May 2006) "Scotophobia" (28 June 2006 "Catholic Poland's anguish" (11 January 2007) "Ryszard Kapuscinski: from Poland to the world" (25 January 2007) "Scotland's democratic shame"( 9 May 2007) "Who needs a constitution?" (22 May 2007) "Poland after PiS: handle with care" (26 October 2007For TV's history programmes and newspapers' Sunday supplements, it all happened in Paris, in Berkeley and (for the British media) in a few Vietnam demos in Grosvenor Square. And yet in Warsaw, that March, thousands of university students were battered down by police clubs and arrested, their teachers purged and exiled, in a battle for intellectual liberty against hopeless odds. Like many great European stories, it began with a theatre performance. Just forty years ago, on 30 January 1968, the Teatr Narodowy (National Theatre) opened its final performance of the classic verse drama Forefathers' Eve, by the national poet Adam Mickiewicz. The director, Kazimierz Dejmek, had been told by the Communist Party culture bosses that the production must close, whatever the demand for tickets. Behind those bosses, pretty certainly, was the Soviet ambassador. The revolt The story begins back in late 1967. The National Theatre was instructed to lay on a special, splendid production to honour the fiftieth anniversary of the October revolution. Dejmek was a touchy genius with no fondness for Russian or Polish Bolsheviks. As one of his actors remembered in the approach to the anniversary, Dejmek took a stiff drink and said to a colleague: "I've had a party order (he used the Russian word prikaz) to do a big number for the October anniversary. OK, we'll do them fucking Forefathers' Eve!" The point is that Forefathers' Eve is a mighty Romantic drama about spiritual transformation, human liberty, the struggle for independence and the martyrdom of the nation under Russian occupation. Written in the 1830s, it has been beloved by generations of Poles as an accurate account of their own suffering and humiliation under war, foreign domination and domestic tyrannies. It is devastating about Russians, about police states and about censorship. How Dejmek thought he could get away with it is a mystery. But he did, with Polish audiences frantically cheering the anti-Russian lines, until the authorities - and the ambassador - woke up. At first, the number of performances was cut. Then it was announced that the production would be pulled on 30 January. Vast [...]